Think you have what it takes to endure a five-month stay in orbit? Be prepared to go through some psychological changes. According to nearly a decade of Russian observations and a 1993 report on human adaptation to long-duration space flight, it all breaks down like this:
Stage One: Welcome to microgravity! You’ll spend the first phase of your journey adjusting to a cramped environment, an upset stomach, headaches and space motion sickness. According to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, you’ll also experience a 26 percent drop in sleep efficiency, with greatly reduced REM (rapid eye movement) time. In other words, you may experience dream deprivation. Expect to feel uncomfortable and sluggish with your work. Luckily for you, most space flights keep some seriously effective medications on hand to wake you up in the “morning” and put you down at “night.”*
Stage Two: According to “Space Psychology and Psychiatry” by Nick Kansas, you’ll probably hit your stride about six weeks into the mission. For up to an estimated six additional weeks, you’ll experience “complete adaptation.” Enjoy it while it last.
Stage Three: Sometime between week six and week 12, you can expect things to get a little moody aboard the old space station. Russian observations found that a number of the symptoms were linked to boredom and isolation. You become hypertensive, irritable and less motivated. Expect to fly off the handle whenever a crew member drifts into your personal space or borrows your iPod without asking. You can also expect increased sensitivity to loud noises, changes in musical preferences, exhaustion, sleep disturbances and loss of appetite. It should come as no surprise that this sometimes results in an “accusation of negative personality traits.”
Stage Four: Finally, toward the very end of your stay in orbit, you can expect to experience “excitation, agitation and lack of self control.” It’s sort of a culmination of stage three, with the added anticipation of finally returning to Earth. But then there’s one final possible symptom: prevailing feelings of euphoria.
Yep, space euphoria at long last. If you saw the 2007 Danny Boyle film “Sunshine,” you witnessed a depiction of this. According to this ESA/NASA report, these euphoric feelings often involve “new insights into the meaning of life and the unity of mankind.” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell described this sensation as “the overview effect,” which Discovery Space’s Ian O’Neill explains here:
“He described the sensation gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. It was an interconnected euphoria.”
Pretty trippy, eh? Mitchell was the sixth man to walk on the moon and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences when he left NASA. He’s also been pretty vocal about the existence of UFOs — take that however you want.
Did space euphoria alter Mitchell’s brain? According to the ESA and NASA, other astronauts have also returned with significant personality changes, and sometimes the alterations are far less spiritual. Humans have returned from space with major depression and anxiety, requiring considerable treatment and readjustment to life on Earth. Make no mistake, space is an extremely hostile environment, no matter how fun it looks on TV.
Mental health continues to be a huge concern for the space industry, whether you’re considering humanity’s eventual colonization of other worlds or merely the price of a space tourism weekend. For more discussion on this topic, read “5 Ways Space Can Drive You Insane” and “What Drugs Are Our Astronauts On?”
* In orbit, one revolution around the Earth takes approximately 90 minutes.
About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.